We all know that cleaning and sanitation are important parts of brewing beer. Often we joke that being a professional brewer is actually a glorified janitorial job. Whether you are a new brewer or you’ve been brewing for years, it’s important to evaluate your cleaning procedures from time to time. Sometimes we get into a routine and fail to be as thorough as we should be.
Cleaning can be said to be even more important than sanitation because you cannot sanitize dirt. There are a few key factors that play a part in the cleaning process: time, temperature, concentration and agitation. Regardless of what cleaning and sanitation products or procedures you use, remember, this is always a two-step process. There is no one-step method on the market that does what you need to do to brew a great beer. Even products that market themselves as “One-Step” need to be used twice to achieve the appropriate level of sanitation. If you’re using bleach, this also needs to be done twice—once for cleaning and again for sanitation. My personal preferences for cleaning and sanitation products are Five Star brand PBW (Professional Brewers Wash) and Star San. I’ve used these two products exclusively since I started brewing several years ago, and they are, in my opinion, the best option for new brewers and seasoned brewers alike. My focus today will be on these two products. That said, we all have our methods—as long as you are using what you use in a two-step process and following package directions, you’ll be great.
So what is PBW? As I said, it’s my favorite cleaner to use. It’s got a few key components that make it a great option for homebrewers and pro brewers alike. PBW is a mild alkaline, a surfactant, a chelation (pronounced key-lay-shun) and uses oxygen to clean. PBW is a mild alkaline. An alkaline cleaner is the best kind for cleaning organic deposits created by homebrewing. PBW is so mild that it won’t harm your skin! PBW also has surfactants which break down the surface tension of the water. All surfaces have microscopic pits, that water can’t always get into. While we can’t see them, dirt and bugs can find their way into these places. A surfactant essentially makes water thinner, allowing it to get into these microscopic surfaces. PBW has a chelation agent, which changes the way metal ions bond, helping to reduce these ions from binding with your brewing equipment and reducing the need to clean with a caustic to remove said ions. Simply put, if you have hard water, the chelation agent will keep those minerals off your equipment. Finally, PBW uses active oxygen to penetrate carbon or protein soils. The oxygen also helps in reducing bio oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand in wastewater, which is an added environmental benefit.
Time and temperature work hand in hand. While PBW can be used at various temperature ranges from 60 degrees to 180, it’s most effective at 120 – 140. In fact, when you use this temperature range, you can cut hours off your cleaning process. According to John from Five Star, (as heard on the Brewing Network’s Brew Strong: Cleaning show) a dirty carboy that you would normally soak for 24 hours in tap water temperatures can be cleaned in as little as 30 minutes with a 1 oz to 1 gallon ratio solution. Certainly it’s ok to continue to soak for 24 hours at room temp. I do this all the time with my kegs. It’s just easier to take them outside with hose water than it is to get them in my bathtub to achieve that temp range. Also, make sure you avoid temperatures over 180. This can make the surfactant come out of the solution, causing a crusty film to be left on the side of your container.
Concentration is also an important part. The package directions say to use 1-3 oz/gallon depending on soil level. John from Five Star says 1 oz is almost always the best concentration. In many cases, when something is extra dirty, it’s almost better to do 1 oz two times than to do 2 oz one time. Interestingly enough, 1 oz of PBW by weight is almost exactly 1 oz by volume. So whichever method you prefer to measure your PBW with, you’ll be correct in regards to concentration…just make sure you measure. If you do not have the proper concentration either you could be wasting product, or worse, you could be using a level that makes the cleaner unsafe to use.
Agitation is another important factor. PBW is made as a CIP (clean in place) cleaner, meaning it will clean with no agitation needed. But if you’re like me, on brew day, you may want to give some of your equipment a quick scrub down before you begin. It can get dusty if you aren’t brewing as often as you’d like! A quick, 1 oz concentration and a sponge does the trick at cleaning everything you need to clean. With this method, time isn’t an issue….just make sure you’re hitting every surface. If you’re using plastic, don’t use anything that would scratch the surface. For stainless or aluminum, a “green scrubby” is always a better option.
Sanitation can’t begin until you’ve got clean equipment. Once you’re there, it’s time to kill any remaining microscopic bugs (bacteria and wild yeast) that remain on your equipment. This is where Star San comes into play. Star San is phosphoric acid and dodecylbenzenesulfonic acid. At proper concentrations, Star San is a no-rinse sanitizer.
Don’t fear the foam
Star San’s high-foaming action is actually a good thing. When the foam adheres to the surface it’s killing all those bugs. With only 30 seconds of contact, Star San kills a level of bugs that makes the surface safe for beer. Three minutes of contact will achieve NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) sanitary levels. You can sterilize with Star San, but, it would take a much higher concentration (rinse required), and more time. But there is no need to sterilize with brewing. As long as you kill enough of the bug population, it makes it impossible for them to compete with healthy brewer’s yeast and your beer will be saved.
Many times homebrewers will make up batches of Star San in a spray bottle, to use throughout brew day. This is a perfectly acceptable method and will make your Star San go a much longer way than continuously making 5 gallon batches. If you do choose to make 5 gallon batches, you can reuse the sanitizer as long as you’ve stored it in an airtight container. As long as the PH is below 3.5 and the solution is clear, you can still use your Star San. Star San has a tendency to react with heavy metals in tap water, and it can turn cloudy. If you were to use distilled water to make your Star San solution, and keep in an airtight container, it will not break down and can be used over and over again.
You can use Star San as a cleaner. However, it is not a good cleaner for the organic materials found in everyday beer brewing. Instead, it’s an acid, and better for those inorganic materials that build up over time, such as “beer stone” calcium oxalate.